What the NSA is up to (part 1 of Running against the state)

This is Part 1 of a two-part post I’m calling, “Running against the state.” Part 2 will be along in a bit, and at that point you’ll see what the title is about.

Part 1 is about the NSA, because we always want to keep you informed about the news here at Casa Chez Nous. And this really is news — a major Wired article about what the NSA is building and just how big the National Spook apparatus really is.

As you read this, do think about the NSA. But also consider the state itself as an entity. The NSA is a part of the state.

James Bamford reports in Wired on where we are with the NSA, how far have they gone in their domestic spying and what’s in the works. It’s technologically fascinating and politically frightening (sorry, kids, but someone has to tell you; my emphasis and paragraphing):

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)

… Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.

The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”

It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes.

And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted.

According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

The article is full and well worth your read.

A few key points to notice:

■ The “near-bottomless” storage capacity and the notion of digital “pocket litter.” In other words, there’s no disincentive to storing everything they can get their hands on. And they can get their hands on everything they want.

■ The connection between storing everything and code-breaking. As the article explains, if you stored coded stuff you can’t break now, you have that stuff for later when the code is broken — even if it’s years later. In essence, everything on earth that was electronically communicated and stored will someday be open — to them. Read the article for that explanation.

■ The way the NSA blew right past the “rules” and is now running in a rules-free environment.

The broad outlines of the so-called warrantless-wiretapping program have long been exposed—how the NSA secretly and illegally bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was supposed to oversee and authorize highly targeted domestic eavesdropping; how the program allowed wholesale monitoring of millions of American phone calls and email.

In the wake of the program’s exposure, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which largely made the practices legal. Telecoms that had agreed to participate in the illegal activity were granted immunity from prosecution and lawsuits. What wasn’t revealed until now, however, was the enormity of this ongoing domestic spying program.

For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail. …

Start reading there to focus on this part of the article. Again, fascinating.

■ And finally, this chilling, unexpanded (unexplained) quote:

The former NSA official [Binney] held his thumb and forefinger close together: “We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.”

The article doesn’t go further, but stays focused on data collection. This is the most intriguing part of the interview, however, and clearly the author included it deliberately and provocatively. The speaker meant something by the comment — we just aren’t told what.

I don’t want to go too long here. Do read the article — it’s rich and full. Bamford is author of author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He knows whereof he writes.

As fascinating as this is, however, there’s a yet-larger point. This is not about the NSA per se; it’s about the state. Please stay tuned.

Enigmatically yours,


(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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